Hundreds of research studies that have examined a wide range of topics on public opinion about crime support the conclusion that citizens generally are not well-informed about this issue. For example, the public perceived that crime rates for several different types of crime were increasing during times when in fact those crime rates were decreasing or remaining stable. The public also overestimates the proportion of crime that is violent and makes incorrect generalizations about the types of crimes most commonly committed by specific ethnic groups. Furthermore, people hold many stereotypes about specific crimes that are inconsistent with the types of cases that come through the courts and with how those crimes are defined in statutes. Jurors with these misperceptions often acquit atypical cases or recommend less severe charges.
There is consensus across different cultures and countries that violent crimes are more serious than property crimes, which in turn are perceived as more serious than drug or victimless crimes. Despite public consensus on relative seriousness, criminal laws in Canada and the United States provide higher maximum jail sentences for some property crimes, such as grand larceny, than for violent crimes, such as fondling a child or inflicting moderate injuries on a person with the intent to harm. All social groups also attributed greater importance to environmental factors than to individual dispositional or mental factors as general explanations for why crimes occur.
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Given the potential influence of public perceptions, this entry reviews research addressing the following questions: (a) To what extent are the public’s general beliefs about crime consistent with the nature and severity of reported crime? (b) How much agreement exists in the public’s views about the seriousness of specific criminal acts, and how well does the criminal law mirror public views about the seriousness of different crimes? (c) Based on the accumulated research, what are the nature of the public’s stereotypes and the extent to which these stereotypes are consistent with the caseload of the criminal justice system and with how laws are defined?
Public Views of the Severity and Amount of Crime
Systematic national survey research in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, and the United States, has shown that the public is not well-informed about the nature of crime. In the 1990s, when reported violent crime showed a significant decrease, the majority of the public believed that violent crime was increasing. Studies that have compared citizens’ estimates of crime rates with police data have repeatedly found that the public overestimates the amount of theft, fraud, burglary, rapes, and violent crime. The majority also overestimates the proportion of crime that is violent; for example, violent crime comprises about 10% of the crime reported to the police, but the majority estimated that violent crime accounted for 30% or more. The majority also indicated that specific crimes, such as murder or burglary, were increasing during times when the system actually showed a decline. Most people also substantially overestimate the percentage of offenders released from prison who commit another serious crime. Whereas 30% to 40% of offenders released are arrested again for another serious crime, the majority of the public believes that about 60% to 75% commit additional serious crimes. The gap, of course, between public estimates and official police data is quite large, and the difference between reported crime and the actual commission of serious crimes may not entirely account for the difference. The news media’s reporting of serious crimes and released prisoners committing new serious crimes also may contribute to the public’s overestimates of the amount and severity of crime.
Public’s Ranking of the Seriousness of Offenses
Researchers and professionals often assume that criminal laws and their associated punishment match public opinion concerning the relative moral wrongfulness and harmfulness of different crimes. This model, called the consensual model, assumes that societal members of different gender, social class, and ethnicities agree about what values should be protected and the wrongfulness of certain acts. This model assumes that the public should determine what is and is not a crime or a serious crime, and public support and compliance with the law will be ensured if the laws mirror public views. Research on crime seriousness has been conducted for more than 40 years. This research started with the belief that a scale of seriousness of different crimes could inform police, prosecutorial, and judicial responses to crime, and by matching public and professional responses to crime, the public’s confidence in the system would be warranted.
To determine whether the consensual model could describe how crimes are defined and justice administered in society, researchers tested whether the public agreed about the seriousness of different acts. Much research has found that the public perceives violent crime as more serious than property crimes, which in turn were perceived as more serious than public-order and victimless crime. Moreover, comparisons across Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Kuwait, Norway, and the United States indicated that people from different cultures generally agree about which crimes are more serious than other crimes. Americans and Kuwaitis, however, perceived rape to be more serious than robbery or aggravated battery, whereas respondents from the Scandinavian countries and Great Britain indicated that these offenses had the same level of seriousness. Overall, there is more agreement than disagreement across countries in the relative seriousness of different offenses. Men and women, individuals of different social classes and ethnicities, victims and nonvictims, and incarcerated offenders and nonoffenders also agree on the relative ranking of different crimes, with the exception of murder and rape. Women generally have rated rape as more serious than murder, whereas men rated murder as more serious than rape.
Though the public demonstrates high consensus about the relative ranking of different categories of crime, there is considerably less consensus about which specific types of white-collar, victimless, and minor property crimes are more serious within each of these crime categories. For example, there is less consensus about, and changes across time in, the relative seriousness of different forms of white-collar crimes, such as tax fraud and price fixing. The public shows more agreement about the relative ranking of different acts of violence, which may partly be due to its greater familiarity with violent acts. In ranking the seriousness of different criminal acts, the public considers the seriousness of physical injuries, offenders’ intent, and offenders’ prior criminal record; crimes that are intentional and committed by repeat offenders are perceived as more serious.
Do members of the public, legislators, and criminal justice professionals hold similar views about the relative seriousness of different crimes? Research has found that even though the public ranks all forms of violence as more serious than property crimes; criminal laws in Canada and the United States provide higher maximum punishments for some property crimes, such as car theft and grand larceny, than for violent crimes such as fondling a child and punching an intimate partner. Legislators in enacting criminal laws thus have not mirrored the public’s views of crime seriousness and give greater priority to protecting property than to personal dignity and freedom from injury, whereas the public has the opposite priorities. Studies also have found that the public, compared with police officers, agreed on the relative seriousness of different crime categories but differed in the absolute seriousness of specific crimes. For example, the public, compared with police officers, provided a higher seriousness rating to white-collar crimes and statutory rape (i.e., an adult having sex with a consenting minor) and a lower seriousness rating to residential burglary. Both the police and the public regarded street crimes as very serious, but the public also was concerned with white-collar crimes and statutory rape.
Public’s Stereotypes of Crimes and Criminals
People tend to believe that crime is committed by a small, easily identifiable group of criminals who are very likely to commit further crimes in the future. The majority of the public blame society, unemployment, neighborhood problems, and lack of parental supervision as the major causes of crime, whereas about one third perceive individuals as solely responsible for their criminal acts and explain crime in terms of lack of morals, drug use, and mental or personality problems. More highly educated and self-identified liberal individuals and younger individuals generally attribute more importance to societal inequities, such as unemployment and discrimination, in explaining the high crime rates than do conservatives and older respondents. Despite these differences across backgrounds, all social groups assigned greater importance to environmental factors than to individual dispositional or mental factors as explanations for why crimes generally occurred.
Stereotypes of specific offenses are widespread and influence (a) public responses as to how to control crime, (b) jurors’ interpretation of evidence and verdicts, and (c) eyewitnesses’ accounts and recall of crimes. Stereotypes consist of visual images and detailed information about how the crime happens; the harm done; appropriate sanctions; and offenders’ motives, dangerousness, intent, and social background.
Respondents are agreed on which pictures of men look like criminals and often describe criminals as young, unattractive males. Race also is often part of the public’s stereotypes. When the public thinks of violent criminals, it often imagines young African American adults who have quit high school, are associated with gangs, and are unemployed or work in unskilled jobs. The public imagines that African Americans generally commit violent street crimes and Caucasians commit white-collar crimes; swindlers are pictured as intelligent male professionals in their thirties. In accordance with probation data, the public and probation officers agreed that the typical burglar is single, unemployed, and a high school dropout. Respondents also agree on the facial features of rapists, murderers, battered women who kill their abusers, and robbers, suggesting that many people may have visual images associated with their stereotypes about specific crimes. These distorted stereotypic images of specific types of offenders may interfere with witnesses’ accurate recall of specific crimes.
Jurors often rely on information in stereotypes to draw inferences from evidence that is presented at trials and to decide whether defendants should be acquitted or convicted. The public obtains information about crime from the media, personal experiences, and interpersonal conversation. For many citizens, the news and entertainment media are the primary source of information about different crimes, and cultural stereotypes of specific crimes provide exaggerated information about the severity of the typical crime. For example, research shows that the public’s stereotype of the typical burglar is a man who carries a weapon, steals valuables worth several thousand dollars, and ransacks the place, which is not consistent with the characteristics of burglary cases that come to the attention of the police. Research demonstrates that individuals holding exaggerated stereotypes often acquit offenders who commit atypical burglary, such as forced entry into a building with the intent to commit another felony but without taking any property. The public also incorrectly labels the forced entry into a home to take property when victims are not present as a robbery rather than a burglary. Based on experimental studies using detailed cases and open-ended questions, the majority of the public also holds misconceptions about robbery, assault, rape, and kidnapping, which may affect verdicts. The public also holds several misconceptions about battered women and rape victims, which calls for introducing expert testimony to correct jurors’ misconceptions. For example, jurors were not well-informed about battered women’s emotions, the batterer’s propensity to make promises to change and persuade the victim to stay, and the victim’s propensity to self-blame or to predict when she is about to be attacked. Individuals often hold many myths about rape. Consistent with media stories, the majority of the public agreed that the most credible rape involves a stranger accosting a woman on the street with a weapon and inflicting injuries, and the least credible were marital rape or instances in which the victim willingly left with the acquaintance and the rape involved no weapon.
Individuals, however, may differ in their personal stereotypes about crime through acquiring information from interpersonal conversations and direct experience. Research shows that when individuals acquire information about burglaries and muggings from interpersonal conversations and direct experience, their stereotypes about these crimes are more consistent with the caseload handled by the criminal justice system. This research thus suggests that the public’s distorted stereotypes about specific crimes may be corrected through education and media campaigns that provide the public with a more representative sample of stories about crimes and criminals. Much research supports the influential role of public views about crime on verdict and punishment decisions; such influence is problematic given the misconceptions that the public holds.
- Finkel, N. (1996). Commonsense justice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Roberts, J. V., & Stalans, L. J. (2000). Public opinion, crime and criminal justice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Smith, V. L. (1993). When prior knowledge and law collide: Helping jurors use the law. Law and Human Behavior, 17(5), 507-536.
- Stalans, L. J., & Lurigio, A. J. (1990). Lay and professional beliefs about crime and criminal sentencing: A need for theory, perhaps schema theory. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17(3), 333-349.
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